Abstract

This article investigates the semantics of sentences that express numerical averages, focusing initially on cases such as ‘The average American has 2.3 children’. Such sentences have been used both by linguists and philosophers to argue for a disjuncture between semantics and ontology. For example, Noam Chomsky and Norbert Hornstein have used them to provide evidence against the hypothesis that natural language semantics includes a reference relation holding between words and objects in the world, whereas metaphysicians such as Joseph Melia and Stephen Yablo have used them to provide evidence that apparent singular reference need not be taken as ontologically committing. We develop a fully general and independently justified compositional semantics in which such constructions are assigned truth conditions that are not ontologically problematic, and show that our analysis is superior to all extant rivals. Our analysis provides evidence that a good semantics yields a sensible ontology. It also reveals that natural language contains genuine singular terms that refer to numbers.

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